Disposable workers of the oil and gas fields

If you don’t have a college degree, it’s the best job in the West. Unless you die, unnoticed.

  • At sunrise, a roughneck begins a shift by guiding the massive sheave — a block and tackle on steroids — into place over a drill string that will be pulled under enormous pressure from a depth of more than 10,000 feet

    JT Thomas
  • Ninety-foot lengths of drill pipe are pulled from the well hole and stacked on the rig. It takes a well-coordinated heave-ho from the “derrick man” up in the “crow’s nest” and the roughneck on the drill platform to swing them safely into position

    JT Thomas
  • Colton Bryant with his wife, Melissa, and kids, shortly before he fell off a drilling rig walkway that had an inadequate railing; the February 2006 accident killed him

    Courtesy Bryant family
  • After drilling as deep as several miles into the earth, sometimes at complex angles, the pressure on the “string” becomes immense, at times peaking at 1 million pounds, and the rig strains while the crew is “tripping out” — pulling the entire length of mud-filled drill sections

    JT Thomas
  • Marsha Iriberry, who suffered many broken bones in a 2003 pipeline explosion, with her dog, Mickey, who recently lost part of a front paw in a coyote trap

    Ray Ring
  • D.J. Maser Jr. was 16 when he got badly burned in a welding shop that serves the oil and gas industry. Ten years later, he works in drywalling, and under the sheetrock dust, the burn scars show on his arms and hands. He got the black eyes at a recent party where he had too much to drink — a rare event, he says

    Ray Ring
  • Chemical-laden “mud”splashes from the hole as roughnecks work with the massive “string” that’s being pulled from deep in the earth

    JT Thomas
  • A roughneck works to get a pipe fitting screwed onto the drill section

    JT Thomas
  • Josh Riedel, front, wanted to be a pilot, and got a thrill on his first parachute jump. A few months after this photo, he took a summer job on a Wyoming drilling rig, hoping to save money for college. The rig’s massive “tongs” — for screwing pipes together — slammed and killed him

    Courtesy Riedel family
  • Safety features abound on newer drilling rigs. But constant demand for maintenance frequently puts roughnecks in high-risk and high-voltage situations.

    JT Thomas
  • A “derrick man,” seen here descending from the rig, can spend most of his 12-hour shift harnessed to the rig and suspended more than 70 feet above the main deck on a catwalk. He maneuvers tethered drill sections into position, an especially demanding job in harsh weather.

    JT Thomas
  • Despite sophisticated computers on some rigs, it is ultimately up to the drill operator to take the pulse of the rig and to watch the backs of his fellow roughnecks. “Whatever is going on, we always just move slow,” says one.

    JT Thomas
  • A roughneck wrestles 500-pound “break-out tongs” across the rig deck to unscrew a drill section from the “kelly.” Immediately afterward, another drill length is hoisted into place and screwed into the string. The driling process continues 24-7 until the maximum “trip” depth is achieved.

    JT Thomas
 

Page 3

Marsha remembers grasping the valve wheel, and the next thing she remembers is waking up, groggy, in pain. The pig had been unexpectedly close to the valve, and it slammed, or came unstuck, all at once, rupturing the pipeline, releasing the high-pressure gas, blowing out a crater, and hurling the women a significant distance. The Wyoming OSHA report says Debra Zeleny flew 54 feet and Marsha Iriberry 64. There was no fiery explosion: It was the force of the gas alone, which the OSHA investigators called “phenomenal,” that propelled the women.

Mitchell thinks the investigators underestimated Marsha’s flight. “The crater was as big as a house,” he says, “so where do you measure from — the edge or the middle of it?”

This long after the accident, they’re making light of it, but they also know it was as serious as could be. Debra Zeleny, a single mother, Marsha suffered broken bones in her right thigh, right heel, left ankle, left elbow, and wrists; she also had damaged vertebrae and many fractures in her pelvis. Bad weather grounded the Flight for Life helicopters, and it took more than an hour for an ambulance to reach the spot. The Gillette hospital rebuilt her wrist with steel pins and her elbow with a steel rotator cup. She was bedridden for weeks, then gangrene-like infections took hold, and she had to be rushed to a bigger hospital to get cut open and cleaned out. She went through two years of rehabilitation.

"See, when you’re in an explosion, everything is blown off your bones, and it has to adhere again," says Anita, who’s helped nurse her daughter back to partial health. "You’re never the same as you were before it happened, mentally or physically. And it affects more than one person — it affects the family."

They say Marsha’s official disability rating, set by doctors who report to the state, is "26 percent full-body impairment." Marsha rattles off the terms: "I can’t bend, kneel, squat, lift overhead, twist, climb ladders more than 10 steps, lift over five pounds consecutively on a regular basis, work or stand more than 30 minutes three times a day," and so on.

Still, Marsha isn’t sitting around complaining. She has a different job now, as a security guard at a coal mine, based in a shack, checking people’s paperwork as they come in and out. It pays $8.50 an hour, about $7 less than she made in the methane fields. Anita is also a mine guard, and Mitchell and another brother, Etienne, are coal miners. (Anita’s husband, Etienne Sr., an immigrant Basque sheepherder, spent most of his life in Wyoming oil and gas and mining, until he got blown up by a natural force — a tornado that ripped through Wright in 2005.)

While looking into the blast that injured Marsha, Wyoming OSHA investigators found that the pipeline company, Merit Energy, had used a common method for unsticking pigs. But they also noted, “None of the companies in the region have written procedures for freeing stuck pipeline pigs. A search of numerous websites did not reveal information on freeing stuck pigs or precautions to observe during those operations.” The investigators recommended that companies figure out how to track pigs’ progress in pipelines, to reduce the chances of slamming. They also recommended the use of “backpressure” — from the downstream end — to free stuck pigs with a gentler nudge.

But Wyoming OSHA did not fine Merit Energy, concluding that there had been no violation of safety regulations. The Iriberrys kind of shrug that finding off, exhibiting a common Wyoming trait — acceptance of whatever is. As we go along the highway at 60 mph, I notice that the women aren’t wearing seatbelts. Marsha says the belt hurts her scars, and Anita puts it in terms of “freedom. I believe accidents are a rule of life. They’re gonna happen, just a matter of when, where and how much.”

We pass methane wells, herds of domestic sheep, antelope, some classic pumpjacks bobbing on oil wells, and a cluster of three big jackrabbits, their ears taller than the brush. Marsha says she’ll probably need more operations to drain fluid pockets in her back and leg. I ask her how she feels, and she says, “Fine. Some days I hurt worse than others, when the weather changes, or I do something I shouldn’t do.” She’s had to buy a lower-power rifle to take on hunting trips.

Back in Wright, at their trailer home on a hilltop with a view, are Mitchell’s wife and kids and Marsha’s cages of loudly chirping lovebirds. There I meet Marsha’s dog, an Australian shepherd named Mickey. Mickey is frisky even though he limps on a bandaged front paw; he got his paw caught in someone’s coyote trap, and the vet had to snip off the damaged toes. They kind of shrug that off, too. They all want to show me the spot where the family patriarch died.

It’s just past the sheet-metal-and-plywood Latigo Hills strip mall. On that summer day when the sky turned black and ugly, Etienne Iriberry Sr. was living in a tiny camper trailer, because he and Anita were going through a divorce; the tornado touched down, demolished the trailer and propelled him through the air. “He landed over there,” Anita says, “by the stop sign.”

---

Death in the Western oil and gas fields is a story best told through people, rather than statistics, partly because the stats are, as even OSHA might say, inadequate. No one can know exactly how dangerous this industry is, compared to others, because the record-keeping is anything but exact.

If a death occurs during oil and gas trucking operations, safety regulators might assign it a trucking code, where it would disappear into all the other industries’ truck wrecks, obscuring its relationship to oil and gas. A deadly trench cave-in during a pipeline burial could disappear into the total of all industries’ trenching cave-ins.

Each worker safety agency runs differently, to some degree. In the Interior West, the federal OSHA runs Colorado, Montana and North Dakota workplace safety probes; Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico run their own programs, under the direction of governors and oversight of legislatures. If you try to total the accidents, you find problems like this: The Wyoming OSHA investigates if at least three workers are hospitalized overnight. But Utah’s agency investigates whenever one worker (or more) goes to a hospital. In this way, the energy accident statistics of different states become apples and oranges, incomparable, but almost always understatements.

Some companies avoid requirements to report serious accidents by putting workers with broken bones back on the job the next day, according to Wyoming OSHA and staffers at a medical clinic in the industry fields. But there is also a cultural reason for the underreporting of oil and gas accidents. Most of them happen in rural places, where the only witnesses to the carnage are other oil and gas workers, who tend to be a crowd unto themselves, and one significantly outside the nation’s mainstream.

Many of them are transient, chasing the jobs from Texas to Montana to Russia and back, without strong roots in any given community. The stress of constant movement makes their rough lives rougher; they suffer hard knocks regularly, even away from work, and that makes them less equipped to stand up for themselves when workplace disaster strikes. They’re not organized. Unions represent only a few — in general, workers in the refineries and on some pipelines. “Unions have great safety programs” and would insist on full reporting of accidents, says Kim Floyd, head of the Wyoming AFL-CIO.

To rephrase the coarse bumper sticker, mistakes happen, and in the oil and gas fields, responsibility for them is often diffuse. It’s a testament to the industry’s safety efforts that more aren’t hurt on the job. I find one of those efforts on a snow-skimmed bluff overlooking Casper, Wyo., behind the headquarters of the Wyoming Contractors Association, where the ground is bladed flat for several sizes of drilling rigs.

About 10 men, wearing gray hard hats and canvas jackets, do laps on the biggest rig: They climb the ladder to the rig’s floor and practice yanking the 175-pound iron “slips” — collars that keep vertical drill pipes aligned. They latch and unlatch a 300-pound pipe clamp. Then they walk briskly around the platforms, back down to the ground, and up the ladder to do it all again. They shout out the names of the rig’s parts as they pass by: “Mud pump!” … “Drill line!” … “Production line!” … “Discharge line!”

This training scene started in 2005, a year when at least eight men died doing wide-ranging tasks for Wyoming’s oil and gas industry. Shocked by that toll and needing to address a chronic worker shortage, Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal and Don Likwartz, head of the industry-allied Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, combined with the billionaire McMurry family (Pinedale gas fields and heavy construction), 40-odd other companies (which donated equipment and $630,000), and the federal Department of Labor (with a $2 million grant) to launch the Rocky Mountain Oil & Gas Training School. John Muse, in a spiffy white hard hat, teaches the bundled-up students how to be “floor hands” — entry-level workers on rigs.